Plant-based eating goes mainstream as Beyond Meat targets Canadian grocery shelves

A California company that was overwhelmed by demand for its meatless fast food burger is hoping to capitalize on the rising trend of vegetarianism and sell directly to Canadian grocery stores starting now.

Vegetable-based burger that first came to Canada at fast food chains now hits grocery store shelves

Beyond Meat's signature burger will soon be available on Canadian grocery store shelves (Beyond Meat)

A California company that was overwhelmed by demand for its meatless fast food burger is hoping to capitalize on the rising trend of vegetarianism and sell directly to Canadian grocery stores starting now.

Founded a decade ago in California, Beyond Meat first captured the attention of Canadians when the company signed a deal with burger chain A&W last year for a plant-based burger — one they claim looks and tastes like traditional patties, but is made entirely from vegetable-based proteins.

A&W was flooded by so much demand for the product that most locations sold out almost instantly, and has had trouble maintaining supply ever since. But Beyond Meat is pushing ahead with more expansion, confident those supply issues have been handled. 

After focusing on getting its products into some 27,000 restaurants around the world, Beyond Meat has now turned its attention to selling directly to consumers. It has struck deals with major food chains like Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro and Longo's that will see the company's plant-based burger patties sold in thousands of Canadian grocery stores.

"On the heels of our successful launch with A&W ... retail is the natural next step for our brand," CEO Ethan Brown said in a release announcing the move.

Billions worth of burgers

Robert Carter, a Toronto-based consumer analyst with NPD group, said Beyond Meat tapped into what was a slowly growing movement toward plant-based eating, and became a leader almost overnight.

"I had seen the underpinnings, but even I didn't expect it to be as popular as it is," Carter said in an interview.

Carter said burgers comprise a $20-billion piece of Canada's fast food industry, a figure that doesn't include the ones that Canadians buy at the grocery store to take home and cook themselves. "We're talking about a tens of billions of dollars market opportunity in North America," he said. "To take a share of that from meat is massive."

While fast growing, Beyond Meat is far from the only company in the space.

Market research firm Mintel estimates that the market for meat alternatives has almost doubled between 2013 and today, and restaurant chains have been trying to tap into that trend.

Burger King partnered with Impossible Foods to create the Impossible Whopper, a meatless alternative to the chain's iconic offering. So far, it is only available in select markets, but it too has seen strong sales and is expected to become a permanent offering.

And earlier this month, Canada's Maple Leaf Foods announced plans to spend $310 million to build a huge plant-based protein food processing facility in Shelbyville, Ind., which will produce the company's Lightlife products, a line of plant-based food items. "We own the leading brands in the North American refrigerated plant-based protein market," CEO Michael McCain said of the venture.

All of these companies are hoping to cash in on the growing trend towards plant-based eating, which has hit something of a tipping point because of consumers millennial-aged and younger. While they may be ahead for now, Beyond Meat "needs to capture as much as they can," Carter said, "because the big players are going to get in on this game very quickly."

He said it's a market opportunity because younger consumers are much more aware of the food they eat, and want to consider the environmental and social impacts — on top of the taste and price.

"These guys have got a product that is so on trend right now," he said, referring to the company's eponymous burger. He said partnering with a fast food chain was a savvy opening move because it gets the product into the hands of potential testers who likely wouldn't ordinarily consider buying it uncooked on a shelf.

Even calling it "plant-based," as opposed to the outdated term "vegetarian," has helped Beyond Meat win over consumers who'd never consider themselves to be the latter. "The messaging has been very well done," Carter said.

So far Beyond Meat has focused on working with restaurants to sell its products, but it will soon go direct to consumers in the grocery aisle. (Pete Evans/CBC)

Calls for Canadian food innovation

Vegetarians aren't the company's target market. 

"Whether you're a hardcore carnivore or a strict vegan, you should be able to have our burgers, enjoy what you're eating and feel great afterward," said Brown, Beyond Meat's CEO.

Nova Scotia-based chain Sobeys is first out of the gate on the grocery side in Canada, with the burger available in every region where the company operates as of Friday. Other chains will follow next month, Beyond Meat said.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said the move away from meat is very much a trend — and Beyond Meat has jumped to the head of the pack — for now.

"Rarely in Canada have we seen a supplier orchestrate such a well-coordinated, timely invasion of a market through careful management and marketing," he said. "Now grocers are drinking the proverbial plant-based Kool-Aid, all at once."

His only beef is that he'd like to see a Canadian-made product growing so rapidly on Canadian shelves.

"It's an American product, fostered and propelled by American entrepreneurial spirits," he said. "Our way of thinking regarding food innovation suppresses any chance for a company to come up with a project like this. There are glimmers of hope, however, as startups are erupting all over the place and will bring a proper dosage of innovation, in due course."